Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Doctor Who:In the dark

If you measure your age in millenniums it should mean that you’ve had time to cultivate an appreciation for time itself as well as an unerring sense of direction. The Doctor, however, had an uncanny habit of getting himself temporarily waylaid and losing track of the hours, days and sometimes even weeks. Navigating through E-Space made it so much harder: for once he had to be alert and ready for anything, especially when the view-screens were no longer working properly.
“Watch out, Doctor!” Emily suddenly shouted, shocking the Doctor out of his reverie. He whirled round to see what the problem was and was shocked to see her eyes scrunched up tight as if she was in the throes of a fit of some kind.
“What’s wrong, Emily?”
“Something’s out there and we’re on a collision course with it.”
“Impossible – we’re in a non-solid state; we’ve yet to condense on a fixed point. Until we do we can’t possibly collide with anything!”
Something slammed hard into the TARDIS knocking Emily and the Doctor flying. The lights dimmed and the central column let out a groan of despair.
“It’s ok, old girl… it’s ok…. That should never have happened!”
“The columns stopped moving, Doctor.” Emily said, pointing to the central console.
“That shouldn’t have happened either. I never asked her to materialise anywhere -we’re still trying to find the Tharrils!”
“So, what did happen then?” Emily still hadn’t recovered from the shock; it was something she had only experienced once before, when she interfaced with the alien race known as the Sibilis. They were a parasitic race that were stranded on Earth. The Doctor had materialised the TARDIS during one of her séances and since then her life had never been the same.
The feeling permeated her in waves, it was similar to the advent of a migraine but one that affected her whole nervous system; she felt queasy, but the Doctor didn’t seem to notice. “What happened, Doctor?” She prompted again; he could be infuriating at times.
“I don’t know. We have materialised and it happened the same time as you screamed. Something has affected the TARDIS.. probably the same thing that’s affecting you too.” He turned to look at her and smiled benignly. “Of course I care…. There’s not much I miss, y’know..”
The TARDIS shook again and Emily cried out in pain.
“Interesting.” The Doctor remarked.
“Not really, Doctor. This is actually hurting me.”
“But is it? Is it a physical pain or is it something more… sympathetic?” Emily just shook her head and tried to stay calm whilst the Doctor focused on his damned instrument panel. “Bizarrely enough the atmosphere is habitable, at least for the time being. We’ll need the space suits we picked up from Gaiafrax in order to breathe, but it should be ok.”
He opened the door to the TARDIS and just stood on the threshold; he’d never seen anything like it. They had materialised inside something that pulsated as if it was alive; but that was impossible, wasn’t it?

Deep within the TARDIS, the Master’s own TARDIS sat having taken on the appearance of a Greek Column with strands of ivy covering it. The Master was feeling in a nostalgic mood, still becoming accustomed to this new body and personality. Being trapped as Missy had been an experience he did not want to repeat. Whilst there were certain advantages -he’d found it far easier to manipulate people as Missy, for example- he was glad to be ruthless and bloodthirsty again.
However, he was now just as trapped in E-Space as the Doctor was. It seemed that the Rani was not as much of a pushover as he had at first thought. Her last gesture had made it impossible for him to return through her CVE. He was now destined to roam E-Space blindly until he found the gateway back. Or he could piggy-back off the Doctor and let him do the hard work. Decisions, decisions…

The Doctor stepped out into the seething, globular corridor being careful what he touched; however each tentative step he took made the place convulse and Emily shriek in pain. This could mean only one thing; they were inside something living, but where had they materialised and how could they escape?
Back within the safety of the TARDIS the Doctor carefully examined Emily. There were no signs of any physical trauma and it had no signs of a psychic attack. The only thing he could deduce was that somehow Emily was empathically tuned into the.. creature, whatever it might be. There were few species that possessed empathy on that scale in N-Space that the Doctor knew of, but E-Space was another kettle of fish; he had no way of knowing. The one thing he did know was that they had somehow collided and were now merged with the entity; it was only the TARDIS’ force shield’s that kept the merging from being complete. That left two possible outcomes: either the TARDIS caused irreparable damage to the beast thereby killing it and potentially trapping the TARDIS within… or the creature would drain the energy from the TARDIS through the strain on the force shield, which would mean the TARDIS, and its contents, would become absorbed as part of the creature for all eternity. Neither of which sounded particularly palatable.
“Emily.. I don’t know how to ask this… and if it wasn’t absolutely necessary..”
“You want me to try and contact this entity, don’t you?”
“Yes. I’m sorry; I need to know what it is… what we’re dealing with.” The Doctor knew just how dangerous this was, but he was running out of alternatives.
Emily nodded and closed her eyes. She tried to push the pain into the background as she had been taught by Annie Horniman. If only she could be here with her, witnessing these sights; she had always believed in life on other worlds and Emily had learnt so much from her. She felt herself become in sync with the creature and her breathing in time with the rhythmic pulsations of the cavern surrounding them. She suddenly found herself enveloped by a wonderful sensation; a love that was completely selfless; to be part of something so much bigger than oneself but not feel alienated by it. To feel connected to everything around, to feel the pain of the TARDIS and not the hate and fear associated with corporeality.
“Oh, Doctor; it’s so beautiful.. I never imagined.” She said, her eyes still closed in a beatific trance. “She’s in so much pain because of us but it just wishes us well; it will do everything in its power to help us.”
“What is she?” The Doctor asked, being careful not to break the transmission.
“It’s so hard to condense the feelings into thoughts; they’re so vast and.. resplendent. The only way I can describe her is as a Space Whale of some kind. She floats through E-Space as an intangibility, feeding off the negative polarities from imploding CVE’s.”
The longer Emily stayed in contact with the Space Whale the more their minds and systems merged; what started out as random feelings were now becoming more cogent thoughts. If this went on for too much longer they could be merged permanently, but the Doctor needed more information.
“Is that why she collided with the TARDIS? Is it because they were vibrating on similar frequencies?” He asked.
“Yes… We felt a bond; a knowing… a cry for help that we could not deny… we could not foresee this happening. We are sorry for causing you distress.” Emily was crying now… the bond was almost complete, the Doctor needed to sever it somehow but didn’t know how. He suddenly thought of it and dug into his many pockets until he found what he was looking for:  a pin. He took Emily by the hand and held out a finger.
“I’m sorry for doing this, Emily; really I am.” He took the pin and stuck it in her finger.
“Ow – bloody hell, Doctor! That really hurt!” Emily thumped him on the arm and suddenly realised what had happened.
“It was the only way that I could think to release you from the link… too much longer and we might have lost you. It was a very brave thing for you to do, though. I can’t imagine what it was like.”
“She was a beautiful creature; I’ve never felt anything like it before; but she’s in so much pain. She could end it so easily by absorbing us and there’s nothing we could do to stop her, but she won’t. She’s pledged to help all life regardless.”
“The Space Whales I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with in the past were among the most empathic, peaceful species in the universe.” The Doctor explained. “It would never threaten life; and I’ve even known them to sacrifice their own so others can live. I will not let that happen here. There has to be a way around where we can both live…”

The Master felt himself get anxious; like the Doctor, he knew just how dangerous things were getting. If the Doctor didn’t act fast then they would all be trapped within E-Space, but unlike the Doctor he didn’t have any qualms about hurting the poor Space Whale. He was going to have to take the reins in hand, it seemed.

The Doctor suddenly turned to Emily in a eureka moment: “Of course -I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner!”
“You’ve thought of a way to escape?” Emily asked.
“It’s going to be difficult and not without a certain amount of danger but if I changed the TARDIS’s energy frequency we should be able to dematerialise again so it goes out of phase with the Space Whale. We would become more intangible for the briefest of moments with only the TARDIS energy fields keeping us together.”
Emily had no idea what the Doctor was talking about but knew enough now to just let him work his magic. It didn’t matter how many times he had tried to tell her that magic didn’t exist she was faced with it every day. Although she believed in rational explanations over the fantastical there was a point where even she had to just sit back in awe. She knew that there existed a state where even the most advanced science was almost completely indistinguishable from magic.
The Doctor, for his part, was close to panic. Although the explanation was enough to placate Emily he alone knew just how dangerous the next few minutes were really going to be. It was certainly going to cause the Space Whale a great deal of pain -they were now enmeshed he just hoped that the Whale could quickly heal itself.
He busied himself around the console; what he was going to do meant perfect timing -he needed the TARDIS to go completely out of phase with the Whale and it therefore meant moving outside space and time for the briefest of seconds. That was hard enough in his own universe and he had only managed it once himself when the Watcher commandeered the TARDIS on the way to Logopolis. There was no way of knowing how being in E-Space would affect things.
He was just about to flick the last switch when he suddenly felt himself go faint. It was a sensation he’d not encountered before; a momentary dissociation with his own body; he could almost see himself make the next few adjustments. He switched the focal point inducer into reverse and inverted the force shield before completing the procedure. The whole of space and time flickered around them as the column turned a dark crimson; Emily fell on the ground screaming. Something had gone wrong, this wasn’t supposed to happen.
The flickering slowed down, with each blast of null-time lasting longer and longer sending shards of pain through the Doctor’s every nerve ending.
Emily was beside herself, writhing in an agony that would surely kill her if it went unchecked. There was only one thing the Doctor could do now. He apologised to the Space Whale and felt his head go light as he punched the dematerialisation button. The world suddenly flashed back into focus and Emily stopped screaming and curled up into a foetal position. It was over but at what cost?

An hour later, Emily had regained consciousness and found herself lying on her bed with a coverlet over her. The Doctor sat at the other end of the room watching over her full of remorse.
“Please tell me there was no other way, Doctor.” She said.
“I just don’t know. Something… went wrong during the transference and the TARDIS lost focus… if I hadn’t dematerialised the whole of space and time could have been affected. The Whale had somehow managed to unify our two opposing forces more than I had at first thought. By rights our two ‘bodies’ should never have been able to exist in the same place but somehow the Whale had absolute control over its corporeality.”
“I think I understand, Doctor… before you de-materialised I caught one final flash from the Whale itself; a final good-bye. In its last moments it loved you more for trying and forgave you.” She sobbed again, she had never known such a selfless love before.
“I wish there had been another way…” The Doctor mourned.
“… before she died the whale implanted in me where the Tharills are…” Emily finally said, “she gave me the way to go home, Doctor; that was her last wish.”

The Master sat back in his TARDIS feeling strangely pleased with himself. Not only had he managed to manipulate the Doctor into killing the whale but now he too had access to the way home. He too knew how to get back to N-Space.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Watch over

Stan is afraid of the dark and its past his bedtime but he’s been told that he’ll be safe –he’ll be looked after. He has someone to watch over him. The wood is dark and he shivers in the cold, the dressing gown and jim-jams doing nothing against the cutting wind, the slippers already soaked and mud caked but still he walks to the magic place just as he was told to. He tries not to feel the brambles snarl his hair, rake his flesh and he chokes back the tears. He mustn’t cry, this is his secret: he’s been blessed as one of the chosen and this is his night. The owls herald his approach, he can see the clearing at the bottom of the daffodil dell and there his friends are waiting for him to join them. He walks towards them and lets the night envelope him. No one can hurt him anymore.

Jeez… Another nightmare…Who was it who said that if you haven’t settled in to your new house during the first week you probably won’t do at all? Esme asked herself. She knew that it didn’t bode well. It should have been perfect: the dream home in the country miles away from anywhere, the ultimate seclusion: paradise. So what was wrong with it? It was miles away from anywhere, slap bang in the middle of the country in a secluded nook in Sussex where no one knew your name but everyone knew your business.
Staplewood was ideal for Tristan, her husband, less than half an hour’s drive from the nearest commuter town of Haywards Heath but it gave him somewhere quiet to return to after the busy, turbulent days he spent in the office.
She still didn’t know exactly what he did for a living –something to do with selling, or overseeing property abroad… every time he told her she just glazed over, so after a while he stopped trying. She was interested (almost) but he wasn’t the greatest of raconteurs and had the habit of explaining the minutiae of the job rather than the job itself. ‘But the job is in the details’ he would reply, to which she’d just nod.
It sounded trite and stereotypical to say that it was his decision to move here rather than hers; his needs over-riding hers. He needed the peace and quiet and wanted so desperately to be the country mouse, but having already lived in the country and hating it as a child this was the last place that Esme wanted to be; especially going back to the very village… not to mention house that she’d escaped from all those years ago. The trouble with stereotypes, as every writer knows in their heart of hearts, is that they’re, more often than not, true.
Esme had inherited the familial home when her mum passed away and she just wanted to sell it, forget about the past and put the money to better use.
Tristan was in the midst of one of his existential mid-winter crises and was feeling cramped and suffocated in the town; he wanted away from the hustle and bickering, the drunkenness and vandalism. He knew that living in the country would solve all his problems and it didn’t matter how many times Esme tried to tell him the realities behind his sad fantasies he wouldn’t listen. He never did.
Two children, which he was very rarely at home for, were a living testament to this. Two desperate attempts to increase the love that he wanted to feel for her and for the ‘honeymoon period’ after each child was born he couldn’t do enough for them both. He was there in every way possible, giving support and love wherever it was needed, but when the paternity leave ran out so did he –right back to work.
So the latest ‘chance at happiness’ was moving into the country and he had suggested it the same way he had suggested having children – the same way a child would: incessantly, with pouting and the silent treatment when not getting his own way. Esme no longer had the wherewithal to refuse him, he had managed to wear her down. She had even tried leaving him but he had ceaselessly hounded her, begging to be forgiven, pledging anything to be allowed to make it right, promising everything that it would never happen again. And, just like a child, after the initial week of contrition he went back to his old ways… worse, he then sulked for a while afterwards.

Staplewood itself was a small village; just a handful of houses, a restaurant (with delusions of grandeur) and a Norman church. There was an overbearing wood nearby, and two ponds in the immediate vicinity where her father had fished but the bulk of the village itself was a single street which was almost an afterthought to the main Steaplecross road and tapered off to a single dirt track which led to Hardings.
She had been indifferent to the village when she was growing up, aware that everyone in her year at school knew the comforts of living in the towns of Haywards Heath and Cuckfield. They had a social life and were in constant contact with each other; she was the social pariah, outcast because of a situation out of her control. Such was life.
By contrast, her brother Stan had loved Staplewood and saw himself as Alan Quartermain searching through the woods trying to find the lost city full of treasure, but he was the one lost to the wood. He often played there on his own; mum and dad so part of country life they could see nothing at fault –no harm could come to him. Things like that happened to other people, didn’t they?
He was missing just short of a few days when someone found him, his little body swaying in the morning mist; almost peacefully but for the pain etched on to his once ecstatic face. One of Esme’s skipping ropes (which had been used both as a mountaineering rope and a lion-tamers whip up until that time) was tied around his neck but he had died of suffocation rather than by a broken neck. From the clumsy knots used and the choice of the skipping rope the police listed the case as death through misadventure rather than investigate as a suicide, or possibly something far worse. Those were the days, after all; things like that never happened and what was worse no one seemed to question it.
The bereavement was like a tidal wave sweeping the old life away leaving only desolation and guilt. The marriage didn’t last and her father left and tried desperately to live a new life; start afresh. He had been blamed for not looking after Stan by Esme’s mum –after all, it was easier laying the blame on someone else rather than take it on yourself and he died a few years later. Esme’s mother stayed, wanting to stay close to her boy, not prepared to accept that he was never coming back. Esme could only take so much and moved as soon as she got the chance, only visiting when it could no longer be avoided.
She tried feeling guilty over abandoning her mum but after her father left she became the focus point of the blame: she should have been keeping a closer eye on him rather than cavorting with her friends. (What friends, she would shout back.) But the truth was no one had doted on Stan as much as Esme had; no one loved him more. To her mum and dad he was just the latest pawn in their mind games, and now the same thing was happening in her own family.
So moving to Staplewood had been a mistake and Tristan was adamant that they were going to make the most out of the opportunity, despite Esme explaining the history of the house and what had happened to her mum and dad. Tristan was impervious to her pain.
However much Esme loathed to be back there was no way she was going to let it impact on her kids. Luckily Tristan earned more than enough money to allow her the luxury of not having to work, which meant she could enjoy the time with Jacklyn and Beth. Jacklyn was old enough to go to the local primary school at Wardinghurst but Beth wasn’t old enough yet; the two of them could go exploring the local area doing the things that Esme had enjoyed.
She knew that Jacklyn had always found it hard to settle in mainly due to the other kids picking on his name. Tristan had wanted a girl as a first born and had had his heart set on the name and refused to change it, despite her protestations.  Jacklyn often tried his best to shorten the name when introduced but his father would have none of it. Tristan’s will be done regardless of who else it hurt, so there was a constant resentment between father and son with Esme slap in the middle. In one way it had brought her closer to Jacklyn as he seemed to appreciate what she was going through, having to deal with someone as obtuse and obstinate as Tristan.

The village hadn’t changed at all; it still had the ‘old world charm’ complete with shuttered windows and closed minds. Her mother had been ‘a villager’ and trusted but Esme knew that she never would be; she had raised too many questions about Stan’s disappearance and death that no one wanted to answer. It was easy to silence a child, especially when the parents were complicit but when she came of age the village made it very clear what would happen to her if she tried sticking her nose in where it wasn’t wanted.
She had been on her way home from the pub (which was now a shamelessly over-priced restaurant), just a hundred yards door to door; it was a close night and she wore a light summer dress and a leather jacket her boyfriend, Steve, had given her the week previously. It looked good on her, everyone loved it (except her mother) and she was happy with how things were going in the relationship. It wouldn’t be long now, she thought to herself, and quivered with anticipation. She didn’t heard them come up behind her. It wasn’t that they were particularly stealthy but her guard was completely down. There were three of them, two men and one woman.
Her arms were suddenly pinned by one of the men, the woman clamped her hand roughly over Esme’s mouth and did most of the talking. “If you know what’s good for you then you’ll shut up.” They didn’t try to hide their identities; what was the point? She couldn’t see the third person but she knew he was there in the darkness. “Don’t ask questions, don’t rock the boat.” The woman hissed. “Keep your mouth shut.”
The third man now stood in front and pressed up against her, running his hands around her in a way he hadn’t done before, his smile predatory, nasty. “She knows… don’t you, babe?”
“Don’t call me that. Don’t ever call me that again.” Esme bit back against the hand, causing the woman to flinch before slapping her.
“Does that mean we’ve broken up?” Steve mocked.
“Keep quiet about this; and stop trying to dig up the shit. No one wants to know.” The other man had said before kneeing her in the back, sending her sprawling into the road. The three walked back to the pub leaving her sobbing and alone.
When Esme finally managed to get back home her mum was sitting in the lounge, opposite the door, in darkness. She didn’t say anything but her eyes were full of recriminations, the message was obvious –Esme was alone. No one else cared.

Even though that had happened eight years ago the village hadn’t forgotten. She was still greeted by hostile silences when she walked along the street, even her kids were shunned (another reason why Jacklyn was picked on by the other kids, perhaps?). They were one of the few families to have the luxury of two cars and Esme knew enough not to park her car in the street; parking was bad enough in such a small village and it was only right that Tristan parked his in the drive. They had a garage but it was so full of boxes from the move that it was decided Esme would park in the churchyard for the time being.
Then came the vandalism; subtle at first: broken wing-mirrors, muddied graffiti, scraped paintwork –all of which Tristan put down to kids. The church car park was right on the main road and easily accessible, he said –anyone could have done it, he said...but Esme knew differently. Ultimately it was the red paint that made it untenable. “We’re still watching” said one; “stay quiet” another. Tristan never asked what it was about but moved the boxes from the garage instead, for once making no comment.
Things changed for the better on a walk around Centenary field behind the churchyard. She’d had a tree planted in her brother’s name when the field had been planted with saplings for the new millennium and had been meaning to visit it for ages. She took Beth and Jacklyn on a walk and tried to persuade Tristan to come but he was too busy watching football on TV. Neither of the kids seemed too interested in her family history and were more intent on playing amongst the maturing beech trees. She didn’t mind too much, she was just pleased to have found it after so many years away.
It was doing well and hadn’t been overshadowed by any of the other trees in the clump. She knelt by its base and sent her love to Stan, hoping that he could feel it.
“I’m sure your brother would be proud to see the tree, just as I’m sure he can feel your love even now.” The voice was deep but gentle and she couldn’t place it at all. She looked up and saw a lofty man standing to one side of her, just on the rim of the tree clump. Upon standing she realised that he was a priest.
“Thank you, father…?”
“Jim. Father Jim.” He replied. Tall and thin with strawed yellow hair, he was of a singular appearance, the clerical collar seemed too loose for comfort and his rounded glasses too thick to see clearly, but his face was kind, understanding. “I suppose I should have said Father James, which would be more in the biblical vein but… well, Jim is more familiar. In fact, just dispense with the Father bit completely. Just call me Jim.”
“Jim it is, then.” Esme could feel herself warming to Father James, which made a complete contrast to the last few vicars who had served the village. “How did you know I was thinking of my brother? Or that I even had a brother?”
“Elementary my dear, Esme. May I call you Esme? Thank you. Well, although I’m fairly new here myself I haven’t seen you here before –the village is small enough that it doesn’t take long to memories names and faces.  I deduced that you must have had a family connection to the village (or had lived here yourself) otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen a specific tree to kneel before. And I saw the name on the label there; Stan Woodward –he was one of the children that was… lost, if you pardon the expression.”
“Yes; lost in more ways than one. I’ve got to say you’ve done your homework…. Does that mean you know about…”
“I know how the other villagers have shunned you, yes. I can’t say that I understand why… it doesn’t make sense to me at all. You want to know the truth behind the deaths –is that why you’ve come back?” Jim asked.
“No. To be fair I didn’t want to come back, Father… sorry… Jim.” Esme blushed.
“Either or any combination. I’ll answer to anything these days!” he smiled. “Why have you come back, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“My husband’s idea, would you believe? When mum died he saw it as an opportunity to escape his little rat race… I’m sorry, that sounds terrible.”
“Not at all. I’m sorry for your loss, by the way. Does your husband know about the history of the village?” Jim asked and Esme nodded. “And about your brother? And he still wanted to come here.”
“I can see that I’m going to have be guarded around you, Jim. I’ve only known you five minutes and already telling you far too much. It must be your priestly robes.”
Jim laughed good naturedly. “Would you call yourself a Christian then?”
“If I’m brutally honest, no. I’m sorry – I know how that must sound.”
“Ha. I do understand and I don’t hold it against you. To be honest.. and I’m speaking confidentially, mind..” He put the side of his hand to his mouth as if conferring a secret at this. “I can’t say I blame you.”
“Father Jim.” Esme said in mock seriousness and laughed when he put his hand to his mouth in shame.
“The church doesn’t exactly make it easy anymore; it hasn’t always grown with the times. In fact, I was faced with a bit of a dilemma –I could either become a shrink or a priest.”
“Or a bar tender?” Esme replied, drawing a laugh of delight from Jim.
“If only I thought of that! I’ve missed my calling; it’s just a shame I don’t drink…”
“You don’t need to partake of the product to become a barman…. Is that why you became a priest?”
“I do have faith… and I wanted to help people. I trained as a psychiatrist but it felt wrong charging people just to exacerbate their problems. I mean, seriously… when did therapy really help anyone? Surely the whole point of therapy is just prolong the treatment and keep them coming back for more?”
“So what’s the difference from becoming a priest?” Esme was enjoying this chat too much, it had been too long since her last adult conversation (somehow the moans and chiding from Tristan didn’t really count). She was still aware where Jacklyn and Beth were, however; they’d just found the stone mushrooms and so she started to walk towards them. Jim followed her.
“Touché.” He replied. “And, again, I can only agree with you. However I felt that by becoming a priest I could potentially help more people.”
“Then you’re to be commended.”
“Thank you.” He nodded. They had reached the stone mushrooms where the kids were sitting. “Hey, kids!”
“Say hi to Father Jim.” Esme said to them both. She turned to Jim and added, “There’s still got to be some respect, don’t you agree?” She winked.
“Oh, absolutely!”
That evening she couldn’t help but think about that chat. Tristan, as usual, had fallen asleep that afternoon despite the ‘big game’ and was now catching up with the edited highlights in bed. The kids had warmed to Jim just as quickly as she had, it was difficult not to. He was quite an enigma and Esme could easily see him as a lifestyle coach or guru –maybe she’d suggest such a thing next time they met… There’d been something niggling during that whole afternoon which she’d only just remembered: Jim had mentioned noticing a name label on the tree but there hadn’t been one on there in years!

Later that night… she knew that Beth had gone missing. She woke up, a sheen of cold sweat covering her body but it was the knowledge that Beth was missing that chilled her more. Tristan was unresponsive to her shaking him, oblivious to the pain she was suffering –she had lost her brother to this.. this plague of suicides, she wasn’t going to lose her daughter as well. She grabbed her parka and quickly pulled on her wellington boots not caring whether she made any noise; she didn’t even bother to shut the door, she just rushed out to the wood.
It was bitch cold; the wind lashing at her, goading her. It was not going to happen again, not her daughter. The ground was sodden, muddy as hell but she paid no attention to it, going as quickly as she could along the path to the entrance of the wood. She was oblivious to everything else; the only thing that mattered to her was getting her daughter back alive. She found herself pausing at the mouth of the wood, the holly maw almost mocking her –was it the inevitability that stopped her for that second? She wouldn’t be denied though and headed straight for the daffodil dell –the same place where they had found her brother, all those years ago.
The body hung limply like a discarded doll with its back to her, the night abruptly silent, mournful. Esme ran to the limp form barely able to see for the panic stricken tears stinging her eyes; just one thought echoing constantly in her brain: “No.. No.. No..!” She scrabbled at the form, tearing at the coat, turning it round. She screamed.
The sudden hand on her shoulder made her slip as she turned and she fell at Tristan’s feet. “What the fuck is going on? I’ve been calling you for ages!”
“Stan…my baby brother –he’s there!” She turned back only there was nothing there, no body hanging at all. “Beth!! What happened to Beth? Where is she?” She suddenly panicked, that was why she had left so abruptly.
“Beth is at home, in bed. Tucked up asleep. What the hell are you up to? Why didn’t you hear me?” Tristan snapped. “Do you know what time it is? What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry –I thought Beth was missing… I thought she…” She said, unsure whether she had been dreaming or sleep walking. Tristan didn’t seem to care.
“I’ve got an early start, for Christ’s sake.” He turned his back on her and walked back to the house leaving Esme to sob into the chilled night. In her hand she held the glove that her brother had worn the night he had gone missing. What the hell was happening to her?

Father Jim was no stranger to nightmares. It was the same reoccurring dream: leading a group of five children across the icy pond. All the children were tied together; their arms roped in a mock gesture of prayer; their legs tied so they could only shuffle along single file. He was in front, his arms and legs free but tied by the waist to them. The snow covered ice was hard going, made harder by the children’s scuffling gait. Without warning the ice cracked; hairline at first but quickly giving way; the children never had a chance, barely able to scream as they disappeared. Jim knew he would be next just as he knew that it was all his doing, just as if he had tied the ropes himself.

He wasn’t surprised to see Esme sitting in the church, waiting for him later –her children sitting with her quietly. It had barely gone ten.
“I need to talk to you, Father.”
“Is this a confession?” he replied, trying to sound more upbeat than he felt.
“Sometimes I think it’s far too late for that.” Esme then retold the events of the previous evening, even explaining about the glove. “The thing is, there’s no one I can turn to. Tristan just doesn’t want to know. He’s always been insensitive but this is something else entirely. I think someone in the village has already spoken to him; he barely seems to tolerate me now. You probably think I’m mad.”
“Then we’re both mad because I find myself believing you…. One of my biggest fears is that madness is hereditary.”
“What do you mean, Father?”
“I don’t know whether I should tell you this. I’m almost afraid of what you’ll think of me.”
“It can’t be any worse than what’s happened already.” She looked at Father Jim’s pained face. “Can it?”
“I have ties to this village as well. Did you know that?”
“No. I didn’t.”
“My father was Tony Bane… Father Tony Bane.” He saw the colour drain from Esme’s face.
“I can see why you’d want to keep all that a secret. Christ, if the village found out!”
“The sins of the past work by association, unfortunately.”
“Did you know?” Esme asked, her voice now no more than a whisper, not wanting her kids to overhear.
“That my father was a paedophile? That the first suicides that happened here were because of him? Well, I didn’t know at the time but even I knew that things were… wrong in our household. All of a sudden no one talked about him, as if he never existed. Things went bad to worse, as you can imagine and I only found out the truth when I grew up. That was the main deciding factor why I became a priest and ended up here, I wanted to atone for his sins.”
“Did they ever find the body of Juliet?”
“No… that was the only thing that stopped them from lynching him…”
“And then he killed himself… bastard.” She looked up, suddenly realising what she’d said. “Sorry. I can’t imagine how you’ve had to deal with this.”
“It’s not been easy, but he was a sick man… and I’m nothing like him.”
“A sick? You can’t seriously believe that? Or is that the shrink in you?”
“I’m not excusing what he did on the grounds of mental incapacity, far from it. I meant he was sick to do what he did –it’s something that I could never countenance doing. He knew what he was doing and, both as a man and as a priest he should have known better. My only release is that he’s suffering in hell not only what he did to those poor children but because he took his own life.”
“Hell’s a big thing for you Catholics, eh?” Esme said snidely, her world rocked by Jim’s revelation.
“Please. I don’t want to fight.”
“So why did you tell me? You must have known that it would affect me!”
Jim looked heavenward as if trying to draw strength. “Why did I tell you? Good question.” He turned back to Esme and looked her in the eyes. “I wanted you to know that you could trust me. I know what you want to do and you’re not the only one who needs absolution.”
“Big words again, Father.”
“Don’t try to hide from your truth. For whatever reason, Esme, you’ve been brought back to get to the truth. Staplewood has a disease that’s destroying the children. Your family fell victim to it and I’m trying to atone in my own way. Together we may be able to get there, but the whole village is going to be against us. You were given a sign last night….and I think I was as well.” He sighed and recounted his dream to Esme. “I think one of the children on the pond was your brother; I think they’re trying to tell me something too.”
“What do you want me to do?” Esme asked, earnestly.
“It’s always bothered me that Juliet’s body was never found.” Father Jim replied. “The moment a body is found then it becomes a murder investigation…”
“.. I don’t see how that would make any difference… it didn’t with my brother!”
“No… but those were different circumstances. Your brother’s death was put down to death by misadventure –did that never strike you as strange?  An investigation would have brought up a whole different kind of investigation; more searching questions. A missing child in the countryside is one thing; another suicide in a closed community –as Staplewood was back then? Well, that’s a whole different story; the police probably would have uncovered something closer to the truth.”
“You don’t mean?” Esme was shocked. “They were complicit in it?”
“Not in the way that you think…. But did they allow the molestations to happen in their own way? No one wanted to face the reality –that it was a man of the cloth made it so much worse. The fact that my grandfather killed himself actually did them a favour.”
“But that’s sick! I can’t believe they’d sink that low.”
“Don’t you? Are you really so surprised? You’ve already told me how your parents reacted to you. Your brother was the first child to go missing since Father Bruce killed himself; and when he was found hanging it was proof of the wrong that had been done.”
“Surely my brother was murdered? I’ve never truly believed that he killed himself.”
“I hate to be the one to say this but it does look as if he took his own life. The autopsy was very thorough, probably at the villager’s insistence.”
“How do you mean?” Esme asked, confused at the turn of events.
“In some ways a murder would have given them the chance to blame an outsider… Do you remember the body of the tramp who was found at roughly the same time?”
“Oh my God… yes, I do. I know I was only a kid at the time but the news was rife around the school as one of the kids found him in the shallows of the Furnace pond. You’re not saying that…”
“Yes.” Jim interrupted. “I’m saying just that. I don’t know who did it but if it’s as I suspect; it would have been far easier to pin the murder on the tramp, especially if the tramp had died of ‘natural causes’.”
“But that’s disgusting. I knew the village was screwed up but I never thought they were that fucked up.” She blanched suddenly at the turn of phrase. “Sorry. Force of habit.”
“I understand completely. But now you know what we’re dealing with and I want… I have to get to the bottom of it all.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Are you sure? This could be dangerous – what I’m going to propose is pretty radical for a priest.”
“You want to find Juliet’s remains, don’t you?”

For the second time in the week Esme found herself in the wood after dark. Father Jim was with her this time and they were near the spot where Esme had been led during her nightmare.
This time she had been careful to sleep in the spare bed– which was happening with more regularity, she had noted. Ever since they had moved to Staplewood they had made love once and once only –the first night. Ever since then he had hardly touched her and the arguments had started over nothing in particular. Often the arguments led to her sleeping alone in the spare bed, and for the first time she was grateful for this; it was easier for her to sneak off to the wood.
Jim was already waiting for her at the mouth of the wood, holding the canvas bag they were going to use to transport the remains back to the churchyard. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? You won’t be able to go back from this if we find something.”
“We are going to find her, Jim; I can feel it.”
“So do I. Right… I’ll be guided by you.”
The blind night made it easier for Esme to orientate herself; for some reason she could tell where she had to go by the feeling in the pit of her stomach. It didn’t take them long to reach the daffodil dell; she half expected to see the body hanging from the tree again and could still see it in her mind’s eye.
“That’s it!” She whispered. “That’s why I was shown the vision. She’s buried by the tree there.” She pointed to the base of the tree and the two of them got on their hands and knees. The loamy dirt was cold and wet as it soaked through their jeans; they’d bought hand trowels as they had no idea how deep the body lay; they didn’t want to disturb the body more than necessary. It didn’t matter how long it took or how uncomfortable they were; neither of them spoke for the hour that they moved the earth away; carefully scraping the dirt rather than digging –more like an archaeological dig than an exhumation.
“I think I’ve found her.” Esme hissed. Jim came round to where she knelt and used his hands to verify what she had uncovered. It was indeed a human skull.
“You’ve found her alright… and a whole heap of trouble.” The sudden voice was punctuated by the stab of a torch beam followed by others.
“You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” She recognised Tristan’s voice amongst the group.
“She never could, mate – regardless of how many warnings we gave her.” The blast from her past; it could only have been Steve, her previous boyfriend.
“Bastards. We’re only trying to lay this to rest.” She snapped back, cradling the skull in her hands now.
“If you knew where she was why didn’t you give her the burial she deserved?” Father Jim replied, incredulous at what was happening.
“You’ll be the one buried if you’re not careful.” One of the mob snapped.
“What are we going to do with them now?” Tristan asked.
“Nothing’s changed… we stick to our plans, but things have been made easier now.” Steve replied. “We’ve got the one final victim and now we’ve got the prime suspect who killed himself as a final act of contrition.”
“What? What do you mean? You’re going to kill him? Kill the Father?” Tristan was shocked, this was going much farther than he had ever imagined.
“You’ve got no say in this. You don’t know his family –it’s because of his father that we’re in this situation in the first place. It’s only right he pays the price for it.”

“You don’t want to go through this, Tristan. You’re contemplating murder.” Father Jim pleaded, his hands tied behind his back as he lie on the sodden mound from the earth they’d dug up whilst searching for Juliet. Tristan had almost finished making up the noose that would be his undoing. “You can’t do this. Think of what it will mean.”
“Shut up.” Tristan snapped back. “You don’t understand.” Tristan pulled Father Jim up by the scruff of his neck, seemingly ignoring his attempts to shake free.
“Nor do you, Tristan. You’re not even from the village, you’ve got no stake in this at all. You can back out and leave and no one would be any the wiser.”
“Shut up. I have to do this.” He put the noose over Jim’s head and tightened it.
“What about your wife? What about Esme?”
“We’ll both be damned then.” It took three sharp pulls on the rope to hoist Father Jim aloft and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. It would have been a perfect end if not for damning Esme in the process. His last thought was of pain and regret.

Esme was not going down without a fight; they had to drag her back to the churchyard; her hands cuffed behind her back but she made damn sure that at least two of her captors would never be having children again.
“Why are you doing this? What the fuck do you think you’re going to accomplish by killing me and Father Jim?”
“You’ve never listened to us; never left it alone like the rest of us.”
“None of you had your brother taken from you; none of you know what it’s like!” Esme snarled back. They were reaching the churchyard where she had been christened all those years ago. How apt that here was where she was going to die.
“All of us have suffered here. You’re not the only one. That bastard took all our children away from us.”
“How fucking dare you? How can you say it’s the same thing? My Stan killed himself. You damned yourself by ignoring what Father Bane did. How many of you knew and did nothing? How many?!” Silence. Damning silence. “It must have been torture; the longer it went on the more of you suffered knowing that by rocking the boat for one you rocked it for the rest… Damning you for the ineffectual parents you are; so much for community spirit. So now you’re going to end it by killing me and Father Jim? Do you really think it will end there?”

It was neither heaven nor hell that greeted Jim Bane; he felt disembodied; numb. The blackness was comforting but disconcerting at the same time. Where was he? What was happening?
“You must help her. This must end..” It was impossible to quantify what it was; had he been incarnate then he could easily have said that he ‘heard a voice’ but he was both the voice and the receiver. It was part of him as he was part of it. More than that, he knew what it meant.
“How can I? What can I do to end it? They’ve gone too far this time…”
“Have a faith… help her and we will help you.” The presence replied.
“With all my heart.” Then nothing. A deafening absence of any sensation. The silence receded into pain; the pain increasing as sensation flooded him and he found himself lying on the woodland floor, his throat lacerated and bruised where the rope had….
He opened his eyes; Tristan knelt over him, wringing his hands. “Thank Christ.” He whispered.
“Wha… what happened?” It hurt Father Jim to talk but he knew that he had to. There was still much to be done. There was still Esme to be saved and the wrong righted.
“I couldn’t do it… Lord help me, I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know what came over me, I’d never do anything to hurt Esme but….” The tears streaming down Tristan’s face were real, something had made him cut Jim down but now wasn’t the time for rationalising. They could still make it.

“What are you fucking waiting for? You’ve got the gun!” Esme wanted this nightmare to end. There was nothing she could do to get out but there was no way she was giving up; she was damned if she would make this easy for them. She was surrounding by the men in the graveyard, Steve just stared at her. It was obvious that they wanted her to just lie down and give up but there was no way she was going to do that, not whilst there was a breath in her body. “Call yourself men? None of you got the balls to just shoot me.” She spat, thrashing out as much as she could to anyone who got close enough.
“You should never have come back. You should’ve left alone when you had the chance.” Steve replied, holding the gun so it was level to her head; his face emotionless just as it had been that night when he confronted her with the group. This was it, she thought. This is how it ends, her brother unavenged and Father Jim framed for it.
“This ends now!” The voice seemed to echo around the graveyard. Everyone was startled by the shout. “You have no idea what you’re doing.” It was then that they saw Father Jim approach them from the entrance of the church, the porch light suddenly triggered by his presence giving him an unearthly glow. Tristan was behind him holding the canvas bag.
“Oh, I think we know exactly what we’re doing, Father.” Steve replied coldly; his face devoid of emotion. He turned to Tristan and said, “I knew you weren’t one of us.”
“Think about what you’re doing, what you’re all doing. You’re going to kill, murder in cold blood two people.” Father Jim implored.
“It’s not too late. This can’t go on any longer.” Tristan agreed, realising now just how he had been caught up in the maniacal fervour.
“You don’t know what’s happened to us; what it’s done to us.” One of the villagers shouted back.
“You have no idea what it’s like to lose someone.” Another agreed. “You’ve no idea how this has eaten us up from the inside.”
“But I do!” Esme cried out. “And yet I’m the one that you’re punishing the most.”
“You won’t let us forget what happened. You keep trying to dig up the past…”
“My brother died because of it. Why can’t you understand that?”
“You think that by killing me and Esme it’ll stop you from feeling the guilt over what happened to your children?” Father Jim edged ever closer to the crowd, closer to Steve and the gun. “So what happens when you realise that you’ve killed two innocent people… and the guilt over them becomes too much to bare? Whose turn will it be to die then? Don’t you understand? When is this going to stop?” He motioned to Tristan to come forward with the canvas bag.
No one tried to stop him; they knew what it contained and all were shamed. Tristan opened the bag and nestled within were the skeletal remains of Juliet. Steve saw the bones, finally faced with the truth behind his fears. He dropped the gun and fell to the ground before her, sobbing.
“She was the only girl who ever showed me kindness in school.” He wept. “We were in love the only way kids can be…and I said…  I said that I’d always look after her.”
“Now you can.” Father Jim walked up and placed his hand on Steve’s shoulder in reconciliation. “We can bury her and her soul will be finally at rest.”
“But what about the village?” Tristan asked.
“The village will carry on.. it has to, but it can heal now. We should never forget what has happened but we must move on and rebuild. We all need to watch over each other now. Who knows, maybe someone has been watching over us all along.”